Troy Johnston looked down from a suite at loanDepot park on Sunday afternoon as the Marlins took on the Milwaukee Brewers. It was the last home game of the season and the Marlins had just handed out their minor league awards moments earlier. Awards included MVPs for each level and three organization-wide achievements. The 26-year-old infielder received arguably the most prestigious title: Minor League Player of the Year.
Johnston, a Marlins’ 2019 draft pick, had been to Miami before. He joked and jested that he misses the home run sculpture that used to sit behind the center field wall at loanDepot park. This time, though, Johnston was in Miami all but a breath away from his first MLB call-up, a fact that was only further corroborated with the handing over of the newly etched plaque from Hector Crespo, Kim Ng, and Bruce Sherman. But Johnston remained as humble as ever.
“It’s a long season and I’m just happy to be here,” Johnston said. “I worked really really hard both defensively, trying to do baserunning, changing my swing offensively to try to be an overall better player. I’m really glad that they saw that and they valued that.”
Johnston’s 2023 season was one for the books and it all started with a chip being placed on his shoulder. After an effective and impressive stint at AA in 2022, the 5’11”, 205 pound first baseman was left unprotected for the Rule 5 draft. Although there were teams interested, Johnston would wind up going unselected.
“It gave me the opportunity to know that I needed to be a better player,” Johnston said about being exposed to the Rule 5 draft last year. “That pushed me to be a better player and not only that, but a better person. Go about baseball the right way.”
Johnston began 2023 in AA where he hit .296/.396/.567. He got the promotion to AAA Jacksonville in June, a level he struggled at in a small cup of coffee to end his previous season. This time with the Shrimp, Johnston was nearly impossible to contain. In 51 games, he hit .323/.403/.520. At one point, he had a 30-game on-base streak, the first time in over a decade a Jacksonville player accomplished that feat.
Late last season, Johnston dealt with a neck injury that required an epidural. According to Johnston, when he returned, he did not feel the same, spelling the way for his struggles with Jacksonville.
“I couldn’t quite move the same. It was really just bugging me a lot,” Johnston said of his end to 2022. “I really didn’t have that at all this year. I was healthy all year and I could play every single day. I think that was the biggest thing—just realizing what my body can do and how far I could push it.”
Johnston also stated he changed his mindset and overall approach at the plate to remove unnecessary complexity and to try to attack as often as possible. Striking this balance was another key to his success.
“Keeping things simpler while being as aggressive as I could,” Johnston said. “It’s hard to be passive and aggressive at the same time. So you have to be either all in or all out.”
Another extraordinary aspect of Johnston’s year was accruing both 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. He’s the first Marlins prospect to achieve that since Bryan Petersen did it between A/A+/AA in 2008. Along with getting stronger physically, Johnston, who doesn’t have blazing speed, was able to quickly learn how to steal bases from the ground up:
“I didn’t know how to steal a base before this year, so learning how to steal a base was really, really fun. I felt faster, but I got better jumps as well. I learned a lot from the guys in AA especially Nasim (Nuñez) and J.D. Orr on how to steal bases. It’s not just about being fast—it’s about reading the pitcher, getting good jumps.”
One of the main questions surrounding Johnston’s skillset in years past has been where he will fit in defensively. Originally an outfielder when drafted, the Marlins moved Johnston into the infield at first base. In 2023, Johnston played 100% of his defensive innings at first, and he believes he made some significant progress with his glove and overall athleticism. He thanked coaches Danny Black, José Ceballos, and others for aggressively pushing him to succeed:
“I think the biggest thing for me this year was that I need to learn how to dive. In the outfield, it’s much different than diving in the infield. I made quite a few diving plays this year and I’m really really happy with the way that has progressed.”
After a grueling year that included a non-roster invite to big league camp and 600 regular season plate appearances, Johnston will now head back to his hometown for some well deserved time off. He’s still Rule 5-eligible entering the offseason. After the season he had, he would almost certainly be claimed by another team if left unprotected again.
“I’m gonna play it by ear,” Johnston said. “We know it’s business. Whatever they want to do, they’re gonna do. I’m just happy with my season I’ve had. I hope I had a good showing. Any way I can help the Marlins win, I would love to.”
The Marlins have until November 14 to select Rule 5-eligible players to their 40-man roster.
Photo courtesy of Miami Marlins